This spring I was voted in as president for the Maine chapter of the AATG (American Association of Teachers of German). It’s work I’m proud to do, but it’s not quite as glamorous an honor as it sounds, since ours is a small chapter, so there are few of us to do the work. Nevertheless, it puts me in touch with German teachers across the state and it’s a wonderful way to develop in my profession. Yesterday was an annual event we hold at the governor’s mansion (called the Blaine House) to honor the achievements of our German students. Our main speaker was Dr. Jay Ketner, the World Languages Specialist for the Maine Department of Education, but I gave a few remarks before his speech and seeing as this blog is all about a love of writing AND languages, I thought I would share it with my readers.
Welcome German students, parents, teachers and honored guests. We are so happy you could make it here today to the beautiful Blaine House and our annual awards ceremony. I know it’s a long drive for many of you and it’s wonderful to see you here.
I drove up here today from York, way at the southern end of the state, but I grew up in Old Town, about 90 minutes north of here. When I was in 4th grade, I came on a field trip to Augusta and we visited the Blaine House. We all had our picture taken with the governor and it was a big deal. I remember thinking how huge this building was at the time. — and while this building is still extremely impressive and beautiful, it no longer seems huge to me. In fact, with all due respect to the governor and our fine state, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the houses back in York were even bigger.
Maybe some of you have experienced something like this if you go back to your elementary schools — everything seems tiny now, doesn’t it? Most of that is just because you’ve gotten physically bigger, but it’s also because you’ve been a lot more places. When you’re in elementary school, that small building is your whole world. Then you go on field trips, you go to other schools, maybe you’ve even moved from one town to another. And you see that there are other ways of doing things — other schedules, lots of other teachers, other ways of organizing the spring concert, whatever. And they’re not better or worse, they’re just different.
That’s what happens when you start learning a language, too. Suddenly you are opened up to a world that’s so much bigger than you ever thought. My first time in Europe was when I was in high school — my first time experiencing pay toilets, handheld showers that sprayed all over if you weren’t careful, being brought sparkling mineral water when you were expecting plain old water…but also seeing fresh flower stands on every corner, getting fresh baked bread every day, and experiencing the glory that is inexpensive, efficient public transportation. There’s the amazing rush you feel when you say something to someone in another language and they are actually able to understand you and respond. It’s like nothing you’ll ever experience.
Now as an aside, I have to get in this plug right now — commit to yourself right this minute to do at least a semester of study abroad — when you travel as a student you are so much freer to see so many different things, not to mention to get so many student discounts! In a state where we carefully preserve buildings that are two hundred years old, it’s pretty amazing to visit towns where the very stones you walk on might date back a thousand years or to walk across squares where you know historic events have happened and to see the buildings where famous people have been born. But again, the cultural richness you find in Europe is not better or worse than what we have here in Maine, just different. We have a rich history and culture too, and you appreciate it so much more when you’ve had the chance to travel, even if it’s just the joy of a good shower or a basket of fried clams.
So to conclude, let’s look back again at this beautiful building. It isn’t the size that’s impressive to me anymore. It’s the fact that this is my state, and my capital. I’ve traveled to Germany many times, and I have taught in several other states, but I’m so happy to be back here in Maine and to have brought all those experiences back here with me. A couple years ago I gave luggage tags to a few of my graduating seniors. The idea was to symbolize the importance of getting away and traveling, but at the same time remembering that that tag is there for a reason– written on it is your home address and it is there you should return.
So, take your language skills and go somewhere with them. Whether or not you decide to major in it, that really doesn’t matter. Today you have proven yourselves to be passionate about learning about the German language and culture and that passion can open a lot of doors — doors you might not even know about yet. Go explore, with the confidence that you will always have a home to come back to. And then come back and share that experience with the rest of us– with your teachers, your family and most of all with your fellow Mainers. Speaking as a small town girl from a very white central Maine town, I know just how important those glimpses into the big wide world can be and how much Maine needs people with those visions.
Thank you, and congratulations!